Yes, according to this July 24th article on NASA’s website, not only can they manufacture injectors using 3-D printers at a substantially cheaper cost than by traditional methods, but the 3-D printed parts actually perform better. You can get all the juicy details from the NASA article – as usual, I’d like to talk about the broader implications. But first, how about a video of the part at work, enduring the 6,000 degree Fahrenheit temperatures it needs to:
Sometimes, NASA seems to be going at a snail’s pace that drives me nuts, but it looks like they’re on the cutting edge here, along with SpaceX, which is also using 3-D printers to make their parts.
Of course, every science fiction enthusiast has to be thinking replicators, right? And this is definitely going to be another case of science fiction becoming science fact, but let’s think about what this means for the next generation or so without getting all Star Trek about it. Think about Mars, or any future space base. Now, if something goes wrong, they won’t need the part manufactured on Earth and set on a potentially months-long delay. Instead, they’ll be taking a 3-D printer and some raw materials with them, and if they need to replace a part, they can manufacture it on-site without delay. This dramatically reduces the risks to any people we choose to send out there – especially for those sent to Mars.
I wonder if they would be able to mine the raw materials on Mars and use a 3-D printer to build the entire rocket there, and get the fuel in-situ as well. That would definitely be an interesting long-term plan so that Mars can have an independent space program. The low gravity and thin atmosphere of Mars might eventually mean that the entire idea of launching from Earth will become less appetizing. Earth will become a destination for rockets, but no one would want to waste the resources to climb out of Earth’s gravity well and take the risks presented by Earth’s thick atmosphere and unpredictable climate. At that point, if you want to go to space, you had better be a Martian!
And now we know that the parts won’t be at all inferior to those that would have been produced on Earth. With this new test of the rocket injector, it looks like more and more parts will be manufactured using 3-D printers from the get-go, and there will be no quality difference at all. Obviously, space applications are the most extreme that any parts are likely to experience, and the conditions within a rocket engine the most excessive of those. While 3-D printed parts are being used increasingly, this is truly the final frontier for this new form of printing.
I’m amazed and enthusiastic about how quickly this technology has grown and been adopted, and I think it’s going to prove essential to any long-time human presence away from the comforts of Earth.